Hello again from the Accidental Alchemist

We're back.

We’re back.

Quite a bit has happened since we spoke last.

What could possibly go wrong? It's April.

What could possibly go wrong? It’s April.

But in the end, as Julian of Norwich says, all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well. So before we really get into it –What It’s Like To Move To A Caribbean Island With Two Large Dogs, Three Cats, and Lucky the Amazing One-Eyed English (No Kidding) Wonder Goldfish — I’ll leave you with this:

Good night.

Good night.

Blue Yonder Original Botanicals — The End of the Year Roundup

This year has been quite the experience for the Accidental Alchemist — I’ve tried everything from canning herb-infused jelly made from our own cabernet sauvignon grapes (you can read about that little fighting vine here), to using a pressure canner for the first time, to slaughtering chickens, dividing The Brave Little Valerian‘s root crown and experimenting with permaculture principles, preparing custom herbal teas, and making an herbal-based muscle salve from infusion to finished product.  With the other Alchemists who post here, I’ve learned about chickenkeeping, mushroom hunting, and cake decorating.

Making soap, though, is my special project, and I thought I’d put together a roundup of what I made this year.

Some folks know from reading the blog that I am in love with the Caribbean island of St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Most of these soaps were inspired by the island in some way — the sky, the sea, and the earth.  Below are some photographs from the amusingly small, completely handcrafted “production line” of what we are now calling Blue Yonder Original Botanicals.  (You can virtually “tour” the actual Blue Yonder in St. Croix at www.blueyonderstcroix.com).

The Sky Series

“Morning Sun” is probably our personal favorite and the favorite of many of our testers (for whose patience I am profoundly grateful).  It is a classic olive oil, coconut oil, and shea butter formulation, fragranced with orange and litsea cubeba essential oils, and finished with a soap stamp hand-brushed with skin-safe mica.  It deserves its own position of honor for its gentleness and invigorating, get-your-day started scent.

Handmade soap “Morning Sun”

 

Another favorite for our testers was probably the most exotic soap I’ve made to date — the stunning “Night Sky.”  “Night Sky” was inspired by the view of the stars in St. Croix, a view made possible by a sky so deep black that you can see clearly the Milky Way. (Want to know why? Go here.)  It is a coconut oil, olive oil, and coconut milk formula, colored with activated charcoal, and scented with a rich, deep fragrance oil of sandalwood and amber.  It was finished with a very light hand-brushing of copper, gold, and pearl micas.

handmade soap “Night Sky”

Sunsets in St. Croix are spectacular nearly every night, with bands of shaded color that stretch across the entire sky.

One sunset from Blue Yonder

 

That’s a banana tree to the far right — it took a bit of a hit in the last run of storms, but is still hanging tough.  The geographical feature close to the center, beneath the moon, probably has a real name but I call it “The Nose.”  In order to even try to replicate this, I had to investigate a new technique.  The soapmakers call it “ombre” or “ombre layering,” and it requires a level of preparation comparable to a moon shot, the ability to not panic when something doesn’t go as expected (not my strong suit), and a great deal of luck.  But in the end, what came out of the mold was “St. Croix Sunset, Emerging Stars.”

handmade soap “St. Croix Sunset, Emerging Stars”

 

How I managed to get even a hint of “The Nose” in there, I’ll never know.  But the colorants included activated charcoal, ultramarines in blue, violet and pink, an FD&C approved liquid soap colorant for the gold, and a dusting of mica in a olive oil, coconut oil, sustainable palm oil and castor oil formula. The fragrance, like “Night Sky” above, was a warm and evocative amber and sandalwood, but with light top notes of spice and Caribbean flowers.

Finally for the “Sky” series, this year saw a convergence of two events: a “blue moon” at the end of August, and the funeral of Neil Armstrong.  A “blue moon” is simply an “extra” full moon during a lunar cycle, and Neil Armstrong remains one of my personal heroes.  So when the blue moon occurred, I broke out the soapmaking stuff and got to work.  I’d made a small tube mold of goatmilk soap with crushed organic chamomile flowers that had been sitting for a few days, and I was pretty confident that it might withstand — without melting — inclusion as an “embed” in another soap.  So I formulated up olive oil, coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and castor oil, emulsified it, colored it with activated charcoal and ultramarine blue, did the pouring and embedding and crossed my fingers.

“Blue Moon (for Neil Armstrong)”

 

The fragrance came out very light, as they sometimes do for no explainable reason, but this one was an amber, milk and honey that becomes stronger in the shower.  It’s a very gentle and richly lathering soap that’s turning into one of my personal favorites.

The Sea Series

It requires a better writer than I am to describe the seas around St. Croix without resorting to the most tired cliches.

Sea breaking over reef

 

It is constantly changing in color, from deep blues to the most delicate of teals, streaks of green and purple, and always the white foam of the waves breaking.

 

 

 

The view from Blue Yonder, when the sea turned to rose

 

Some evenings, the sunset will reflect from the clouds and sky and turn the sea into a stunning rose.

 

 

 

The view from Turtle Beach on Buck Island

 

 

Buck Island’s Turtle Beach is where a flatfish is now wearing my husband’s wedding ring as a tiara.  The entire island, and the reefs around it, are designated a National Monument. It contains an underwater snorkeling trail, with signs explaining everything you are swimming through and gasping at.  That’s where we met the “Blue Tang Clan” and the “Squid Squad,” as well as one tense moment with four barracudas staring flatly, utterly motionless, at us. (These are fish who can appear to contemplate, better than any other fish I’ve ever seen, how easily they can turn you into chum.)  It’s also where we swam with a pod of wild dolphins and saw wild mongeese in the woods.

This level of sensory input is a pretty high barrier to overcome, and I’m still working on trying to recreate even a sense of the Caribbean sea in some of the soaps I make.

“Harbor”

 

“Harbor” was my first experience with a “fast-accelerating” ocean fragrance oil.  Some scents can speed up the saponification process, turning your soap batter into cement in seconds. (We call it “soap on a stick,” the stick being your stirring spoon).  I managed to slap a few pieces of Harbor into individual molds before the rest of it hardened into something you’d use to pave a landing strip.  The color, though, did come out very true to the blue you see in the harbors of the Caribbean, the scent very ocean-like and refreshing, and the lather was very good.

“Reef Sea”

“Reef Sea” was the result of the rest of the soap batch, which hadn’t contained the accelerating fragrance.  I mixed several ultramarine colorants and did a basic swirl to try to recreate the mixing of the colors of the sea as it breaks over a coral reef. The fragrance I did try was an evocative “island” scent, full of flowers and fruit, while at the same time carrying a whiff of salt and sea.

The next attempt was inspired by the photograph above from Turtle Beach at Buck Island.  Dozens of boats, from small two-manners to giant yachts, are moored at any time at marinas all over the island.  One of the most exhilarating experiences you can have is taking a half- or full-day deep-sea fishing trip, or taking a catamaran out to Buck Island.  Boating and sailing are intrinsic parts of island life, and I wanted to try to capture what it looks like when you are just heading out on a beautiful day.

“Blue Skies, Clear Sailing”

Boating isn’t all there is to the sea, though.  St. Croix is famous for “The Wall,” a ledge that runs along the north shore of the island and can drop to 13,000 feet deep.  It’s a favorite of serious divers — the diversity and richness of the sea life is stunning, as is the clarity of the water.  But even casual snorkelers can find sites that suit their level of swimming skill and snorkeling experience all over the island.  Most of these sites have names that range from accurate to hilarious.  My favorite has always been the “Swirling Reef of Death,” and I felt, when I discovered a new swirling technique (the “zebra stripe” or “spoon swirl”), that I had to get on it right away.

“Swirling Reef of Death”

Needless to say, the “Swirling Reef of Death” isn’t.  It’s a peaceful, warm, and beautiful spot that absolutely deserves a soap like this to maintain its reputation.  The formula is simple but classic, a basic coconut oil, olive oil, sustainable palm kernel oil, and castor oil formula with ultramarines and micas as colorants.  The scent is another island type — sandalwood and amber, with fresh flowers and fruit.

The Earth Series

“Rainforest”

The island is more than just the sea and sky cradling it.  St. Croix is small island that contains astonishing geographical diversity — the east end is drier, suitable even for cactus species, while the western half contains an actual rainforest.  Driving through the rainforest (you’d probably take Mahogany Road, named after the magnificent trees that populate the area) can be a hair-raising experience, but well worth the occasional alarm from washed-out stream-crossings and crumbling asphalt.  It is a place of such extraordinary color and variation that of course I made a soap.

“Rainforest” was my first experiment with completely herbal and clay colorants.  Some folks might know that I grow herbs, lots of them, and I was excited to try using them to color soap as opposed to my usual ultramarines and oxides.  So in order to try to capture the shifting variations of greens in the forest canopy, I chose comfrey leaf, nettle leaf, and French green clay as my swirl colors.  The formula was as basic as I could get it, just olive oil and coconut oil, because I had no idea about what these babies were going to do.  The fragrance was what I knew was a well-behaved sandalwood and fruit with a top note of lemongrass, and I put in some ground chamomile flowers for a slight exfoliation effect. Nothing accelerated, everyone behaved, and after a stint in a Pringles can mold (this was before I had the PVC pipe that I use now) I had “Rainforest.”  I stamped it with a little rubber leaf stamp I found in a long-abandoned kids’ art project box, and brushed it with just a little mica.

Enfleuraging Ginger Thomas flowers

Then there’s “Christiansted,” which was my first try at rebatching a soap into something new.  I’d made a soap that didn’t work out at all the way it was supposed to, even though it contained a very labor-intensive enfleurage of Ginger Thomas flowers that I’d made on the island. The stuff looked great when first poured into the mold.

Wow! Look at that color!

 

 

Sadly, the color did not hold, and I ended up with a white soap that the UUH (Unbelievably Useful Husband) disliked. Colors and fragrances can morph, intensify, and completely disappear on you in soapmaking.  It’s part of the alchemy.  I suppose tearing your hair out is too, which is why the medieval guys wore those ridiculous hats.

Shredding soap for a rebatch.

Yup, that’s the color it turned — a very nice white, but not at all what I was after.  I had to do some research on how to rebatch soap, which in my case meant creating another new batch up, melting the shreds into the new batch, recoloring, and refragrancing.  I was inspired here by the charming little harbor town of Christiansted, and I wanted to capture the colors of the buildings there.

The colors are worn to pastels by the sea and salt, battered by rains, constantly washed by the tradewinds, but remain beautiful and vibrant all the same.  I chose a Moroccan rose clay for what’s called an “in-the-pot” swirl, as opposed to a swirl you attempt in a mold (see “Swirling Reef of Death” for an example of the latter), and ended up with “Christiansted.”  It turned out to be one of my testers’ most popular soaps.

“Christiansted”
“Sea Glass in Sand”

“Sea Glass in Sand” was a bit of a stunt soap, my experimenting with adding glycerine soap chunks to my own cold-process goat milk formulation.  I was trying to recreate the experience of finding sea glass, which is ordinary broken glass worn smooth and jewel-like by the action of sea and sand, during a walk on the beach.  I used commercial glycerine soap for the chunks, as I don’t have the experience for doing it myself, and it is a complex and chemical process best left to the commercial operations.  This photograph was shot soon after cutting; in the weeks it has been curing, it has whitened so dramatically that it surprises even me.  The fragrance has “stuck” beautifully.

Finally, there’s “Turtle Tracks,” which is a soap I am absolutely delighted with.  On St. Croix, as on most Caribbean islands, sea turtles come up on the beaches to dig their nests and lay eggs.  The citizens of the island take their responsibility toward the turtles very seriously. Entire beaches, or areas of beaches, can be roped off completely; and in places where that’s not quite necessary, nests are clearly marked with “Stay Off” signs.  At night, when they’re ready, the little turtles emerge and make their dash for the sea. They leave very distinctive tracks behind, and one day I saw them at the Tamarind Reef Resort. While this isn’t a picture I took, it’ll give you an idea of what you’ll see when you go, and why I became so enchanted with the idea of making a soap about this heroic effort:

I knew I had to make it small, like the turtles, so a guest-sized soap seemed appropriate. I had a little left of some jojoba oil that I had infused with mullein flowers, organic yarrow, and Ginger Thomas from the island; to that I formulated coconut oil, olive oil, shea butter, and castor oil, and added a little ground chamomile flowers to give the appearance of the sand. Recreating the turtle tracks was the hardest part.  I ended up using one of those cheap little sponge eyeshadow applicators and a tiny brush for the mica to pick the tracks out from the “sand.”

“Turtle Tracks”

While the island provides a lot of inspiration to me, I also began to experiment with fragrances as well as formulas for different reasons.  For one person, I developed a rose absolute and vetiver fragranced shea-butter formula that is now and forever will be “Tracy’s Rose”:

“Tracy’s Rose”

 

“Phoenix”

 

There was “Phoenix,” a shea-butter formula with an oatmeal, milk and honey fragrance. I did do some new work with stamping and mica-brushing.
New molds can give “usual” formulas very interesting new looks.
And lastly, I had a special request from a very special person to make a Chocolate Soap. Now I had some things to consider; in the house there were allergies, so I had to avoid any oils or butters that might be nut-derived.  Coconut oil was okay, so I could use that.  I wanted to avoid any colorants if possible, and I knew that any fragrance that contained vanilla would naturally darken the soap to a chocolate brown.  I researched the safest chocolate fragrances and planned out the pour.  My task was clear; the end result was “Chocolate Pie.”

“Chocolate Pie”

Right now, a soap is curing that required a completely unique fragrance mix, and that I’ll introduce at some point in the near future.  Creating new fragrances from infused oils, fragrance oils, and essential oils has been an unexpected and delightful surprise from the soapmaking venture I’ve gone on this year, as well as learning the physical techniques of pouring and swirling, cutting and curing.  With the generosity of the UUH I now have beautiful and useful devices for cutting, planing, and finishing the pieces that I’ve made.

“The Tank” — wire soapcutter handmade in Hong Kong.

I’d like to thank everyone who tried my soaps, gave me feedback, and listened to my moaning about all the trials and tribulations.  It’s only going to get more interesting from here on out at Blue Yonder, and I’ll keep you up to date.

 

House Imps, Gremlins, and Other Impractical Pests

One of the best things about playing with alchemy is the constant reminder that you are part of a tradition that has persisted through millennia, and there are books to prove it.  This morning I was perfecting and vetting a formula for an herb-based cream, and as part of my research I ended up browsing through several medieval works to see what they had to say about the matter. The one that prompted this post was Hildegard von Bingen’s “Physica.”

Hildegard (1098-1179) was one boss lady, a medieval genius who established and ran several important (meaning incredibly wealthy) abbeys, wrote music that people perform to this day, argued with and persuaded kings, bishops and Popes over theology and politics, dictated uplifting and illuminating visions of God that were the medieval equivalent of bestsellers, knocked out biographies of saints and Gospel commentaries on a weekly basis, and wrote a kickass medieval medicine textbook in her spare time.  That last is the “Physica,” and it covers a lot more than herbal medicine.  She meticulously documents the essences and uses not only of plants, but also of trees, elements, stones, fish, birds, animals, reptiles and metals.  But what captivated me on this reading was triggered by her description of lavender:

Lavender is hot and dry, having very little moisture. It is not effective for a person to eat, but it does have a strong odor. If a person with many lice frequently smells lavender, the lice will die.  Its odor clears the eyes [since it possesses the power of the strongest aromas and the usefulness of the most bitter ones. It curbs many evil things and, because of it, malign spirits are terrified.]

 

Now any serious discussion of malign spirits can drive your train of thought completely off into the (nonmedicinal) weeds, no matter what millennium it is.  I ended up going through not only the Physica but also a really nifty book I’ve neglected for some time — “Magic in the Middle Ages” by professor Richard Kieckhefer — to find out a little more about them.  Not only were malign spirits, imps, and other potential hostiles like fairies and elves viewed as a real threat for most of documented history, they’re still around in modern culture: for example, soapmakers frequently blame the “soap gremlins” whenever a batch seizes, rots or explodes for absolutely no reason, and pretty much everyone recognizes when a gremlin gets into a car engine or an airplane (see, e.g., the Twilight Zone’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”).

Given this kind of record, I found myself thinking about malign spirits that house gods were intended to intimidate way back in the day.  I came up with the following list because I’ve hosted all of them at one time or another.

DRAGGLE:  Imp specializing in unpredictably intermittent, unusual and unexplainable noises. Exclusively nocturnal. Distinguish from “Plynk.”

PHNU:  Water-dwelling imp that clogs drains.  A particularly venomous subspecies backs up toilets, usually during dinner parties when you’re trying to impress someone.

PIFFT:  Deflates things that need to stay inflated. Subspecies pokes holes in beanbag chairs. See also “Shrip.”

SKRITCH:  Dries out pens, and returns them to desks and countertops after you’ve thrown them away.

OHFOR: Produces reoccurring and inexplicable carpet stains. Researchers dispute about whether it’s an imp or an actual gremlin, considering the cost of replacing carpet once you’ve given up trying to remove that disturbing, did-somebody-die-here splurtch.

PLYNK: Gremlin residing in plumbing systems, particularly water mains, irrigation pipes, and tank heaters.  When bored will produce tantalizingly irreproducible faucet drips. Almost always seen only during weekends, holidays, or other “overtime” plumber scheduling.

SHRIP:  Herds, hoards and hides dust-bunnies, -buffaloes, and -brachiosaurs.  Regional subspecies known to disable vacuum cleaners; evidence is Lego, penny, and string spoor that have completely mangled your expensive Dyson. Check for nests under large, heavy objects.

GAH:  Knocks over containers of liquids; first signs of infestation are water rings on wood surfaces with no obvious glass in evidence.  Subspecies known to colonize refrigerators.

MINCH:  Kills houseplants.

Finally, there’s the PURSE WEASEL, the only imp for which I have an actual, though poorly-realized, image.  Every woman is familiar with this one.  It removes and hides keys as its specialization, but also conceals credit cards and other important documentation while replacing them with crumpled receipts, outdated coupons, grocery lists from 2008, and useless change.  Subspecies are the “Backpack Weasel,” which hides and/or destroys homework, and the “Mail Weasel,” which piles junk mail on every available flat surface of the home while dragging important letters such as bills and legal notices into unpredictable areas.

Suspected “Purse Weasel” imp.

I’m sure there are a lot more of them out there.  Which ones have you hosted?